Great comic pairings don't come along often, yet Steve Carell and Paul Rudd strike a snappy chemistry as straight-man Tim Conrad (Rudd) to funny-man Barry Speck (Carell) in this adaptation of Francis Veber's Le Diner du Cons (1998).
Ambitious Tim keeps proposing to his affectionate girlfriend Julie (Stephanie Szostak) when he isn't trying to advance his position at the private equity firm where he works. Lightening strikes when Tim daringly pitches a client idea at a meeting overseen by company president Lance Fender (Bruce Greenwood). Lance dangles a corner office as a carrot for Tim if he can deliver the promised $1 million deal client and bring a suitably dopey schmuck to the company's monthly parlor-game-disguised-as-private-dinner.
For the dinner, Fender and his associates meet at his mansion where several have invited the most idiotic person they could find. You've heard of "blaming the victim"? Well, here's a concealed contest that's more along the lines of "humiliate the geek." Entering Tim's random world of economic high hopes, is mouse-taxidermist-artist-extraordinaire Barry Speck, who attaches himself to Tim like a tic on a dog.
Steve Carell's dentally altered
character walks a fine line between innocent ignorance and malicious
intent as he accidentally but systematically upends Tim's precarious
Barry's unique hobby is making dioramas ("mousterpieces") that feature stuffed mice dressed up like rodent actors frozen in theatrical tableaus. An obligatory artist homage series features mouse versions of Edvard Munch's "The Scream" and Leonardo da Vinci's "The Last Supper." It's in this detailed fantasy world that we get a galvanizing glimpse of Barry's gentle soul, however juvenile it might me. Barry's misquote of a John Lennon song ("You may say I'm a dreamer but I'm not") exposes the autistic nature of Barry's social skills and trouble with syntax. Barry might be a "tornado of destruction" but the character never carries any of the malice associated with such sociopath types in dark comedies like The Cable Guy.
Through a series of laugh-inducing attempts at helping Tim with his girlfriend troubles — Julie is furious over Tim participating in the dinner —Barry opens up a mixed bag of comic possibilities. During an expensive luncheon between Tim and the German millionaire couple he seeks as clients, Barry unexpectedly shows up with Tim's stalker ex-girlfriend Darla (played with kooky acuteness by Lucy Punch). The exchange of a certain cloth napkin with "I'm wet" written in lipstick is enough to ignite a chain of laughter that swells as the scene progresses when Tim Julie arrives.
Austin Powers franchise director Jay Roach strategically builds toward the film's promised climax dinner party scene with a steady flow of physical and situational humor that goes over the top without alienating the audience. The inclusion of Ron Livingston as one of Tim's unsavory business associates places the film in a precise arena of irony that is reinforced with zingy supporting efforts by Zach Galifianakis, as an IRS home-wrecker, and Jemaine Clement as an hedonistic artist.
The reason to watch Dinner for Schmucks is to enjoy the off-kilter harmony of two great comedians working off one another in a vaudeville style that's just as fresh today as when Laurel and Hardy or Martin and Lewis did it decades ago. Here's one Hollywood comedy that actually makes you laugh. Grade: B
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